Electricity vs. Biofuels: Which Gets More Miles per Acre?

As if ethanol and other biofuels don’t already have enough problems (see The Biofuel Bubble), here’s another.

A new study in the May 7th issue of Science magazine calculates that, if cars are to be fueled with biomass (such as by ethanol from corn or switchgrass, or by electricty generated from burning crops), those cars will actually get more miles per acre of crops if the cars run on electricity, than on liquid fuel. Why?

The idea is that it would be more efficient to burn the biomass directly to generate electricty, which would then power the cars, than it is to turn the biomass into fuel first, to be used in standard internal combustion-engined cars.

In the study, researchers at Stanford University and the Carnegie Institution for Science (affiliated with Stanford) calculated how far a car could go on the energy produced annually by one acre of switchgrass (a form of prairie grass). An electric car could go 14,000 miles. The biofuel-powered car? Only 9,000 miles. "The internal combustion engine just isn't very efficient, especially compared with electric vehicles," explains Stanford's Elliott Campbell. "We could do more to fight climate change by making electricity [from crops] than making ethanol."

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